To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters
Chapter One

The demon’s sudden appearance, along with a puff of malodorous smoke and a short-lived burst of flame, took Chesney Arnstruther by surprise.

He recovered quickly, however. The existence of demons had been thoroughly covered during his youthful education, which from the ages of five through fourteen, had included three hours of Sunday school–taught without pussyfooting by his mother, a leading member of the congregation. The minions of Hell had also often figured in the sermons of the Reverend Erwin P. Baumgarten, their pastor, who had fallen under the spell of the Book of Revelation even before he had attended Rock of Ages Bible College.

In adolescence, Chesney had drifted away from old-time religion. His was a rigorously logical mind that could not abide the contradictions and absurdities in scripture. He found a more reliable truth in the elegant architectures of mathematics.

But though he had long since given up thinking about demons, he was still able to recognize one when it flashed into existence right before his eyes. The brief pyrotechnics attendant on the fiend’s sudden manifestation scorched the top of the young man’s almost-finished poker table, so that his first reaction was a surge of indignation at the ruination of the green felt surface, which he had almost finished tacking into place.

Chesney said, “Get the blue bling blithers off my table!”

The demon, which resembled a huge toad that had been tinkered with to give it oversized, clawed hands. spread its lipless mouth to reveal a smile full of dagger-like fangs. “You invite me to depart the pentagram?” it said, in a voice like bones cracking.

“What?” said Chesney. An instinct for self-preservation now reasserted itself, overcoming the shock of the fiend’s arrival and the still-throbbing pain from his hammered thumb. “No, I’m not inviting you to anything, except to go back where you came from!”

“To hear is to obey,” said the demon. “Just sign here and here, initial there.” It had produced a roll of parchment and used the tip of a claw to mark three places with an X.

The young man glanced at the document. His first thought was that its author must have learned penmanship from a seismograph; the letters were all spiky, scrawled across the page with ferocious violence. His second thought, when he managed to decipher some of the content, he expressed out loud: “No way I’m signing that! You’d get my soul!”

“That is the standard arrangement. You summon one of us, we do your bidding, you render up your insignificance.”

“My what?”

“It’s the technical term, where I come from.”

“I don’t care if it’s the word of the week,” said Chesney. “My soul is not an insignificance to me. I’m not signing.”

“Then I can’t do your bidding.”

“I don’t have any bidding for you to do. I just want you to go back to ‘where you come from.’”

“That sounds like bidding to me,” said the demon.

“Well, it’s not,” said Chesney, sucking away the blood that was still welling from beneath the nail of his left thumb and gesturing with the hammer he held in his right hand. “It’s a rejection of the entire concept of bidding. Especially if the bidding costs me my soul.”

The demon looked annoyed. Chesney did not find it a happy sight, but he stood his ground. “Now, go away.”

“I can’t,” said the toad. “You summoned me. I’m here until I’ve done whatever it is you need doing. Even if it takes overtime–for which, you ought to know, I get nothing extra–so sign the agreement and let’s get to work.” A ripple passed over its warty skin. “It’s cold up here.”

“I didn’t summon you,” said Chesney. “It’s some kind of mistake.”

The demon slitted its yellow eyes. “All right,” it said, “let’s go over this. This is your pentagram I’m standing on, right? And”–its nostril slits widened as it took a deep sniff–”that’s your blood there, deposited by your hand sinister? And you did say, ‘Hodey-odey shalaam-a-shamash woh-wanga kee-yai‘ didn’t you?”

“Oh,” said Chesney, “now I get it. I can explain.”

It all began with Letitia Arnstruther, Chesney’s mother who raised him singlehandedly from an early age after Wagner Arnstruther, his father, departed for parts unknown with a waitress he met at a truck stop. A devout woman, Letitia could not abide rough manners, and she especially frowned on coarse language, in both of which her husband abounded. Indeed, her son had often wondered–though he’d never had the courage to ask–what strange concatenation of events must have occurred to unite his parents, even temporarily, in matrimony. He did not wonder why his mother made no attempt to find Wagner Arnstruther and invite him to repair their broken home.

Yet one thing was clear to him as he grew from childhood to manhood: even the mildest profanity would net him cold looks, even colder suppers, and downright chilly silences, the punishment sometimes stretching through an entire week and beyond. Therefore, as a defense, whenever Chesney felt the need to express himself in strong language, he taught himself to substitute strings of nonsense syllables. The habit, deeply ingrained at an early age, had endured long after he left home–and the Reverend Baumgarten’s congregation–to attend college in another state.

It was in college that Chesney fell in love with numbers. He was especially enamored of the sheer decorum of the interrelationships that numbers can form with each other; they became his fascination. Though he lacked the creativity to pursue a career as a theoretical mathematician, and the inclination to teach high school math, his degree led to his taking a position as a junior actuary at Paxton Life and Casualty, a mid-sized, Midwest insurance company. He spent his days calculating the risk of death or injuries for tiny slices numerically carved from the US demographic spectrum. His evenings were mostly given over to his second love, also discovered after departing from his mother’s sphere of influence: comix and graphic novels, especially those that featured oddly talented individuals who fought crime on a freelance basis.

A life of crunching numbers suited Chesney’s unusual personality, which had been studied by experts from the age of four through ten. He was severely introverted, but that was not uncommon among actuaries, who were not expected to be the life of any party. Most of the men in his department–and it seemed that the actuary profession attracted only men–had grown up almost as friendless as he had. Five of them, however, had made it a habit to get together at each other’s homes to play small-stakes poker every other Saturday evening. Chesney was asked to join when one of the five had dropped out because he was leaving town, and it turned out no one else in the department was willing to spend time with the remaining four.

Poker became another of Chesney’s limnited set of loves. Oddly, though, he did not apply to the game the same standards of logic and mathematical rigor that governed other sectors of his life. Chesney never applied his math skills when he played poker. He bet high on weak cards and stayed in for pots he had no realistic chance of taking; for him, winning wasn’t the point–what counted was the sense of being in the game, the heady rush of risk and possibility that he couldn’t get if he folded early. This characteristic endeared him to the other players, all of whom played strictly by the numbers and who thus regularly went home as the beneficiaries of a transfer of wealth from Chesney’s wallet to theirs.

The game’s venue rotated among the players, and after a couple of months, Chesney was told that he was expected to host the next get-together. He went home and examined his premises with an unhappy eye. He had a cramped studio condo in a downtown high-rise, with a Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall. The place had a kitchen nook, the wall between it and the rest of the single room being pierced by a pass-through that had a countertop and two stools. Otherwise, Chesney’s domestic arrangements consisted of a couch fronted by a coffee table, and a chair and matching table made of extruded plastic out on the postage stamp-sized balcony.

There was nowhere to sit and play poker, even if two of the five sat on the end of the Murphy bed. Chesney went trolling through furniture store sites on the internet, and soon settled on five folding chairs that could be stacked in the downstairs storage space when not in use. But for a decent-sized poker table, he sought in vain. They were all, apparently, made to accommodate seven players, and the designers must have assumed that most of those players would be of significant girth. There was no way Chesney could fit such a table and chairs into his small living space, even with the bed up, without hauling the couch and coffee table down to the locker.

That seemed a burdensome chore. Instead, he rallied his minor skills as a craftsman–he had taken one term of woodwork shop in high school–and resolved to make his own playing surface. It would have only five sides, there being only five in the group, and with some judicious trimming it would seat them all comfortably.

Chesney had had the lumber yard cut the three-quarter-inch plywood top to size and had bought ready-made legs from the store’s do-it-yourself department. Along with a drill, a multi-tip screwdriver, a sheet of green felt and a box of tacks, he felt ready to tackle the project. He already had a hammer, having found one when he moved into the apartment.

“So you see,” he told the demon, “I was tapping in a tack. I hit my thumb hard enough to make it bleed. I shook my hand and some blood hit the table. At the same time, I swore–the way I swear–and the next moment, there you were.” He paused to suck the last droplets of blood from his thumb. “It was just a mistake.”

The demon gave him a look that was almost as cold as one of his mother’s worst. “You expect me to go back and tell that to my supervisor?”

“It’s the truth.”

“Where I come from, truth is not a highly prized commodity.”

“Well, I don’t know what else I can tell you,” Chesney said. “I didn’t summon you.”

“Yes, you did. Or I wouldn’t be here.”

Chesney tried to explain. “It’s like when a tree falls in the forest–”

“Yeah, because somebody chopped it down.”

“Let me finish. If it falls and nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a sound.”

The demon twisted its face in incomprehension. It was quite a twist. “The guy who chopped it down is deaf?”

“Never mind. That’s not the right example, anyway.” He thought for a moment then said, “It has to with intent. I may have inadvertently said the words that summoned you, but I was not summoning you when I said them. The mere sounds don’t matter. There has to be the intent behind them.”

“Intent?” said the demon. “That’s your angle?”

“It’s not an angle. It’s an explanation.” He sought for a different word and one appeared in his mind. “No, intent is the wrong word. It’s about will. I did not will you to come, therefore I’m not bound to accept the offer.”

“So you’re definitely not signing the agreement?”

“Definitely.”

The demon spread huge hands like a giant, toothy toad that intends to take no responsibility for whatever comes next. “Okay,” it said. “But let me tell you, this is not over.”

And with a second puff of stinking, yellowy smoke and a sharp lick of red flame, it was gone.

“So what are you, some kind of wise guy?”

The question broke Chesney’s immersion in the graphic novel–Champions of Justice–he had been reading. It hadn’t been just the question, though; there had also been the sudden whiff of sulfur and the gravelly quality of the voice, which sounded as if it had come out of the mouth of a tyrannosaurus with laryngitis. He looked up to see, standing on the other end of the bench in the downtown minipark where he ate his lunch on sunny days, another demon.

This one had the head of a weasel that had been refitted to sport a pair of canine fangs of sabertooth caliber, and coal-black eyes the size of saucers. It was about the height of a small boy, but its body was a miniature version of a pot-bellied, heavy-shouldered thug in a pinstriped suit with wide lapels and a ridiculously small tie. It wore two-toned shoes of patent leather with the insteps covered by pieces of strapped-on cloth–spats, Chesney thought they were called, though he’d never seen them in real life, and only on the Penguin in Batman comix–and its stubby, hairy-backed fingers flourished a half-smoked cigar as it waited for an answer to its question.

“I beg your pardon?”

“We don’t do pardons, mack,” said the apparition. “That’s the other outfit’s racket.”

“The other outfit?”

The demon poked one thumb upwards. Chesney noticed that its thumbnail was chewed down to the quick.

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “I assume you’re here about the mistake?”

“We also don’t make no mistakes. So we need to clear this little thing up, see? Real quick-like. Twenty-three skidoo.”

“Why do you talk like that?” Chesney said.

“Like what? Last time I was up this way all youse mugs talked like this.”

“We’ve moved on. So should you. I’m not interested.”

The demon moved closer, put one hand on Chesney’s shoulder. He could feel the heat of it through his suit jacket and shirt. “We can make you a real sweet deal, pal.”

“No.”

“You ain’t heard the offer yet. It’s a doozie.”

“You mean, ‘an offer I can’t refuse?’”

The demon’s weasel lips drew back in what Chesney’s hoped was a smile. “Hey, I like that,” it said. “I can use that.”

“Leave me alone or I’ll call…” He had been going to say, “a cop,” but he saw from the creature’s expression that the threat carried no weight, so he switched the ending to, “a priest.”

The humped shoulders shrugged. “That don’t cut no mustard with me, mack. I’ll just ankle outta here and come back when you’re alone.”

Chesney sighed. “All right make your offer, but the answer’s still going to be no.”

But even before he could get the last words out, the park disappeared and he was standing in a room about the size of his condo, the walls lined with metal doors of various sizes, each with a number and a slot for a key. “Where am I?” he said.

“Swiss bank,” said the demon. “Get a load of this.” It tapped one of the large doors down at floor level, and the panel popped silently open. A metal box slid out onto the floor, and the demon flipped up its hinged top. Inside were bound stacks of high-denomination bills, leather jewelry cases and at least two full-sized ingots of pure gold.